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FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – Freehold Music Center-Musical Instruments & Lesson Studio, whose patrons over the past 73 years have included school children, guitar amateurs, musicians and young legends, will close at the end of the month, its owner said. .
Bill Marinella, the owner who himself has worked at the store for more than 40 years, said the store had been operating on a month-to-month lease. Its landlord has lined up a new tenant who is ready to sign a long-term lease for the space.
“I’m 68 years old,” he said Friday. “I’m not ready to commit to another long-term lease.”
Freehold Music Center at the Freehold Mall on Route 9 sells instruments such as guitars and drums, offers repairs and offers lessons. And it’s a branch of an iconic store founded by Michael Diehl, whose music students included Bruce Springsteen.
(Freehold Music Center−Pianos, a sister business on Route 9 whose owners include Diehl’s nephew Chris, remains open).
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The instrument and studio business was hurt in recent years by online shopping and COVID-19, when, Marinella said, the store closed for three months and lost a wave of customers who were stuck in isolation and decided to learn to play guitar. .
Since announcing its closing in a Facebook post on Feb. 5, longtime customers have been drawn to the store, buying discounted instruments and reminiscing about taking their kids there for lessons or finding the right guitar.
More than a hobby
Gab Cinque, 22, of Freehold Township, stopped in one day last week to buy a 12-string guitar.
Cinque said she bought her first guitar and took music lessons at the store. She didn’t grow up in a musical family, but she formed a friendship with the staff there, which set her on the path to her current profession as the lead singer for the Gab Cinque Band, a rock band that started in 2022.
“My dad used to take me there and before I played anything, I’d look at the instruments and wish I could,” Cinque said. “It’s sad to see a place where I started playing music go.”
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Marinella grew up in Union Beach and Aberdeen and was taught how to play the accordion by her grandmother. He hated it. But he learned the basics of how to read music. And he transferred his skills to the organ and piano, taking lessons from musicians he described as heavy hitters and becoming proficient enough to become a touring musician.
He joined a rock band called The Box Tops and traveled across North America for three years before returning to Monmouth County to look for steady work. He was one of 50 people who applied for three positions at Freehold Music’s Monmouth Mall store and was hired, first selling pianos, then overseeing a new part of the business: non-piano instruments.
In 1992, Michael Diehl decided to split the business between pianos and other instruments, and he sold the non-piano business to Marinella. The two continued to operate together in Freehold Township under one roof.
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Marinella worked almost every day, while still playing in a local band on the weekends. As the store faced increasing competition from chains, “I could afford it because the customer still had to get in their car and go to the store,” Marinella said. “We had a lot of knowledge because we were all musicians. This is what we do and always have done.”
The business model didn’t last. The Internet began to drive customers away. And the Freehold Music Center made way for an Aldi supermarket and moved to two separate locations: Musical Instruments & Lesson Studios found a new space in the Freehold Mall, and Pianos opened two miles away on Route 9.
‘It was kind of bittersweet’
The pandemic was another blow. Consumers were stuck in isolation with a lot of time on their hands. But they turned to the Internet to buy instruments. Online retailer Sweetwater said its customers grew from just under 1 million in 2019 to 1.5 million in 2020 and sales topped $1 billion for the first time in the company’s 42-year history.
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Freehold Music reopened, but Marinella said it struggled to be profitable. When his landlord told him he had a new tenant for the space, he decided to close rather than move, noting that it would be expensive to replace the store’s existing studios.
“When they told me I had 30 days to get out, it was kind of bitter,” Marinella said. “I was lying awake at night, (thinking), I’m going to miss this so bad. I’m going to miss my customers and I’m going to wake up every day that I have to go somewhere and do something. It’s going to be a change of big”.
“But over time, I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “Because at 68, maybe it’s enough. It’s a tough business, isn’t it? It’s really tough.”
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has written about the New Jersey economy and the health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at [email protected].